Background: The design of dietary, metabolic, and intervention studies should reflect the meal patterning of free-living individuals, but this design has not been systematically reviewed recently.
Objective: Our objective was to examine meal-patterning trends [meals and snacks, termed eating occasions (EOs)] in a sample of US children and adults.
Design: This was a nationally representative cross-sectional study of US data sets from 1977 to 1978, 1994 to 1998, and 2003 to 2006 in 28,404 children (2-18 y of age) and 36,846 adults (> or = 19 y of age). The main outcomes of interest included the number and size (energy/d) of meal and snack EOs, the composition (food or beverage) of each EO, and the time interval between each EO.
Results: The number of EOs increased over the previous 30 y among all ages. For adults and children, the change in the number of EOs from 1977 to 2006 was greatest for those in the 75th and 90th percentiles, although the mean number increased across all percentiles. Energy intake, particularly from snacking, increased for both groups in all percentiles of the distribution. The time between EOs decreased by 1 h for adults and children (to 3.0 and 3.5 h in 2003-2006, respectively). Overwhelmingly, meals consisted of both food and beverages, but the percentage of snacking occasions that consisted of beverages only increased considerably among children.
Conclusions: US children and adults are consuming foods more frequently throughout the day than they did 30 y ago. Researchers undertaking future clinical, preload, and related food studies need to consider these marked shifts as they attempt to design their research to fit the reality of the eating patterns of free-living individuals.